US educational achievement on international assessments The role of race and ethnicity

By Benjamin Dalton

The debate about the performance of US students on international assessments of educational achievement routinely fails to account for one consistently stark result: US achievement is bifurcated between a group of high-performing Asian and white students and an exceptionally low-performing group of black and Hispanic students. By summarizing results across 20 major international tests conducted since 1995, this research paper shows that when US racial and ethnic groups are separately compared with other countries, Asian and white students regularly perform at or near the top of international rankings, while black and Hispanic students typically rank at or near the bottom. Furthermore, the United States has a substantially larger minority population than all other developed countries, and minority status is not synonymous with internationally comparable factors such as socioeconomic level or immigrant status. The fact that overall US scores are disproportionately influenced by race and ethnicity suggests that researchers and reformers must reconsider how they use and interpret the results of international achievement tests. The research paper recommends providing and analyzing cross-national data separately by ethnic groups to inform approaches to improving education for all students.


Dalton, B. (2011). US educational achievement on international assessments: The role of race and ethnicity. (RTI Press Publication No. OP-0005-1105). Research Triangle Park, NC: RTI Press.

© 2019 RTI International. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


Benjamin DaltonBen W. Dalton, PhD, is an education research analyst at RTI International with expertise in the study of high school students, the high school curriculum, career and technical education, and international assessments of achievement. His research interests include course-taking and curriculum differentiation, racial and ethnic differences in educational outcomes, and the organizational characteristics of schools.

Contact RTI Press

To contact an author, request an exam or review copy, or seek permission to use copyrighted content, contact our editorial team.